"Highways, houses and hedges" or "trains, towers and trees"? Vishaan Chakrabarti's A Country of Cities
Marc Norman reviews architect Vishaan Chakrabarti's new book A Country of Cities: a manifesto for an urban America, which celebrates the Manhattanisation of US cities as an economically rational antidote to the damaging health and environmental effects of sprawl.
Growing up in early-1980s Los Angeles, I saw hundreds of single-family homes disappear. Every week seemed to bring the demolition of a 1930s stucco bungalow with tile roof and tidy yard. Aggregated and redeveloped, the cleared lots began to sprout four- and six-storey apartment buildings. On Wilshire Boulevard mansions and garden apartments gave way to towers as high as thirty stories. The adults called it “Manhattanisation.” With the increased densities, land values skyrocketed. Retail activity increased, and Wilshire has become a corridor with bus rapid transit and a subway-to-the-sea halfway complete.
Vishaan Chakrabarti’s new book, A Country of Cities: a manifesto for an urban America explains and celebrates the kind of urbanisation that remade Westwood and West Los Angeles, along with other densifying places in Northern Virginia, Denver, and elsewhere. “Federal policies continue to perilously fuel a country of highways, houses and hedges,” explains Chakrabarti. “A Country of Cities contemplates a different nation, one of trains, towers and trees. By removing the legal, economic, and moral imbalances that incentivise sprawl, we can realise a more prosperous, more sustainable and more equitable nation.”
A Country of Cities synthesises the progressive consensus on the costs of America’s misguided postwar romance with the suburbs and the social, environmental, and economic benefits of urban density, giving these ideas new clarity and heft by illustrating them with drawings, diagrams, charts, and case studies. A concise and entertaining first chapter shows how the suburbs built across the US after the second world war were “a creation of big government” produced by regulation and subsidies as a system of easy finance, big subsidies and throwaway architecture locked in a singular vision of the American dream. Data and graphics outline the consequences in terms of obesity rates, lost time, family cohesion and economic vitality. In a litany on the ills produced by suburban, car-based development Chakrabarti notes that traffic accidents have been the number one cause of childhood fatalities worldwide — beating HIV, malaria and other diseases.
Things are changing. Once the embodiment in the cultural imagination of freedom, independence and safety, the suburbs are losing cachet as residents — especially poor residents — confront the limitations of car-based, single-use development. They are ground zero for the foreclosure crisis, the new loci for increasing poverty and home to scores of dead malls. Cities, meanwhile, are thriving as the go-to place for Generation Y young adults who are driving less, marrying later, and craving urban connection.
A cool economic rationale
What sets A Country of Cities apart from other contemporary books on the urban condition is its combination of real estate fundamentals, big data and accessible graphics. Chakrabarti reviews the logic of transit-rich urban density in clear, compelling language buttressed by graphics that translate complex concepts, much as Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language and Kevin Lynch's Image of the City did for another era’s urban analyses. A Country of Cities also evokes Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, bringing a cool economic rationale to Koolhaas's “retroactive manifesto for Manhattan,” celebrating the city as the site for an infinite variety of human activities and events, both real and imagined.
A jack of all urban trades, Chakrabarti, trained as an architect, has been director of the Manhattan office for the Department of City Planning as well as a senior executive at the Related Companies. He currently teaches real estate development at Columbia University, where he is director of CURE, the Center for Urban Real Estate, and is a partner at SHoP Architects. As a polymath, Chakrabarti uses A Country of Cities to deploy insights drawn from a comparably broad range of sources. Pragmatic solutions for inserting density: Upzoning! Shout-outs are sent to intellectual forebears and compatriots including Jane Jacobs, Milton Glaeser and Bill McKibben. Axonometrics brush up against wonky disquisitions on air rights transfers and tax-exempt financing districts. Tenets of good city form are discussed, and then we learn how they’re financed.
Chakrabarti references the successes of large-scale New York City projects from SHoP but addresses his manifesto to a broader range of places and people. Not every place can or wants to be New York City, and A Country of Cities sets the bar for entry at a relatively low 30 units per acre (the magic number for hyperdensity), then goes about showing diagrammatically various ways that can be achieved at a variety of scales and locales.
Sections outlining “why cities are good” and “how to build good cities” are backed by charts, graphics and case studies that concretise otherwise abstract issues and build the case for the manifesto. One graphic illustrates underwater mortgages, obesity, and misplaced federal subsidies graphed across the historical time periods over which these negatives increased: a concise history of the collapsing American dream, all in four-by-six inches. Others outline the political economy of sprawl, the link between romance and commute time, and the definition of affordability. A Country of Cities even mines the history of film to trace our shifting notions of utopia and dystopia from Bob the Builder to Blade Runner.
According to Chakrabarti, “a largely urban country spurred by policy reform, in contrast to our sprawling reality, would unite to become economically stronger, environmentally sounder, internationally safer, physically healthier, socially more fair and experientially more livable and globally envied and emulated.” Amen. But changing 60 years of entrenched suburban subsidies and mindsets is a heavy lift. Understanding the daunting task he has set for himself, Chakrabarti acknowledges, “people are accustomed to their subsidies, particularly those in the middle class, who tend to believe they are not subsidised at all.”
A Country of Cities will please many urbanists and provide a new tool for urban proselytisers. Will it reach the suburban family living just above poverty, deciding between the car payment and the mortgage, not voting and struggling to stay afloat? Will it persuade policymakers at the city, county, and state levels? We can hope — and the clarity with which Chakrabarti makes the case will certainly help. Our suburban counterparts should read the book, but might also need to slowly pass these images on billboards, bumper stickers and bus shelters as they take the long, hot, lonely drive home.